December 9, 2010
WikiLeaks, Stuxnet, Cyberwar, and ObamaBy J.R. Dunn
War is transforming itself before our eyes, turning into something unfamiliar and strange. Information has taken a place as a major class of weaponry, with sabotage and subterfuge as preferred tactics. On the new battlefield, these weapons are available not only to nation-states, but to organizations and even individuals.
The Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) is something that ought to be more widely known than it is. Starting in the 1980s, advances in cybernetics and communications began having a dramatic impact had on military operations. Such innovations as Precision-Guided Munitions (PGMs) and high channel capacity communications systems not only increased the effectiveness of individual weapons systems, but, acting as force multipliers, they also boosted the capabilities of entire units to a point where they could take on and defeat enemy forces that in the past would have been considered far superior.
The impact of the RMA became apparent in the First Gulf War of 1990-1991. Most of the two-thirds of a million Coalition troops deployed in Saudi Arabia never engaged with enemy forces. The Iraqis were defeated by a handful of spearhead units so technologically superior to the Warsaw Pact-type Iraqi units that there was no contest. In 2003, a much smaller Coalition force routed the Iraqis, utilizing all the technological advantages that had appeared in the ensuing twelve years. (Unfortunately, Donald Rumsfeld attempting to carry out the occupation of Iraq with the same size force, demonstrating that the RMA does not extend to civil affairs.)
But despite all the speculation surrounding the RMA, few foresaw the arrival of a second phase in which the breadth, execution, and very definition of warfare would be transformed. The new technology empowered not only military forces, but also intelligence agencies and even non-state actors. Utilizing communications and cybernetics innovations, the new combatants can, under the right circumstances, have an impact rivaling that of entire nation-states, causing serious turmoil and damage with a minimal outlay of effort. In 2010, we have been introduced to this mutated form of warfare by two distinct events: Stuxnet and WikiLeaks.
Stuxnet is the trojan "malware" (somehow the term doesn't seem quite fitting in this case) infiltrated into Iranian nuclear weapons program infotech systems. Its creators are unknown (for the record, I would surmise that these were the U.S. and Israel, the U.S. possessing the knowhow and the Israelis the espionage network). Its effects have been substantial but as yet unquantified, and they may remain so. One curiosity concerning the incident lies in the fact that damage estimates have continued to grow in the months since the worm was first discovered. Even Iranian strongman Ahmadinejad has, very much against his will, been forced to acknowledge the damage the program wrought. The Iranian nuclear effort has not yet returned to normal operations. Some question exists as to whether it can.
Since Stuxnet was discovered in July of this year, considerable effort has gone into analyzing it by computer security outfits such as Symantec and Kaspersky Labs, as well as agencies generally known by their initials. Expert conclusions can be best termed "disturbing." The Stuxnet worm is serious sci-fi malware, not something made up by a comp sci major in his dorm room. Embodying several innovations not previously encountered, it comprises a multi-targeted, multitasking IT warhead of unparalleled capabilities.
While much of the story remains conjectural, what we know is this: the worm was seeded in home PCs in the area surrounding Iranian nuclear facilities, presumably in computers belonging to Iranian techs and scientists. The program infected one or more flash drives, which carried it into the nuclear sites. There it targeted the centrifuge cascades used to enrich uranium. Stuxnet was programmed to manipulate these centrifuges, which number in the thousands, in a particular way -- by causing them to suddenly speed up well faster than their design limits without destroying them. This accomplished two things: it damaged the machines, and also cut the purity of the uranium, rendering it useless. This is an interesting point -- previous speculation on destroying the cascades has revolved around driving the centrifuges out of control. Since these machines revolve at a speed of several thousand RPM, increasing the speed uncontrollably would cause them to simply disintegrate.
But Stuxnet was specifically designed to avoid this. Why? To continue the process as long as possible without calling attention to itself. There's only one rational reason for such a tactic: while disabling the cascades, Stuxnet was also doing something else.
What follows is speculation -- what I would want a cyberwarfare worm to do if I were to order one. We can assume that Stuxnet was sending copies of itself out of the facilities, possibly by way of the same people who brought it in, and then contacting its creators through external computers. As the months passed, it forwarded more and more detail about the Iranian program. By now, the white hats know as much about Iranian nuclear initiatives as the Iranians themselves, if not more. And this involves not only facilities and technology, but also personnel -- it's well within the realm of possibility that the two nuclear scientists attacked on November 29 (one was killed, the other badly wounded) were identified as crucial to the Iranian effort by Stuxnet.
As knowledge of the Iranian program grew, it's likely that Stuxnet was adapted to target different facilities. Distinct "mods" could be programmed to perform varying tasks. The Iranians have put off the ignition of the Bushehr reactor several times with no explanation, suggesting serious problems. Lingering effects of Stuxnet are not out of the question. Beyond that, the possibilities are endless. Consider an app that could change or lose internal e-mails while they were being sent, or place suspicious or misleading files in an engineer's computer, and so on. Between Stuxnet and covert action, the mullahs' nuclear program is being dismantled piece by piece. Lastly, it's possible that we haven't heard the end of the Stuxnet story. Copies could be still hiding in odd nooks and crannies of the Iranian system, with the computers reprogrammed to overlook the fact that they exist. The very possibility must weigh heavily on the mullahs and their servants.
Serves 'em right for using Windows.
A cyber warhead of this sophistication represents an evolution even more profound than the introduction of ironclads in the Civil War or aircraft in WWI. What this means in immediate terms is a constant, continual cyberwar on the Cold War espionage model. Adversaries will endlessly probe potential enemies (not to mention friends) to discover weaknesses and pry out secrets. (The behavior of China over the past few years suggests that this state of affairs is already the case.)
The first strike in any war from here on in will be cybernetic, in hopes of paralyzing an enemy's armed forces and shattering his society. Under these circumstances, the most important military figure in sense of pure national defense will be the cybertechnician, much as the missile launch officer was the most crucial during the Cold War. The American military need a bottom-up evaluation of its entire military IT system, including training, doctrine, and practice, to assure that we are capable of addressing this challenge. Such an action can't be expected from the current administration, preoccupied as it is with such critical matters as eliminating DADT and assuring that military vehicles use their fair share of ethanol. But it should be the first thing on the agenda when an adult administration again takes office. The survival of the United States as a superpower depends on it.
Further evidence of that fact is easily obtained from the WikiLeaks saga. It is no exaggeration to state that Julian Assange is engaged in warfare. He is at war -- not simply with the U.S., although the U.S. is his current bête noire, but with the human race as a whole. He is a would-be Alexander, intent on bending the world to his will, with little concern who gets hurt while he's doing it. He sees himself as a mythic figure, above and beyond the run of normal humanity, a man with a historical mission. (This is no rarity, unfortunately -- see Obama, Barack.) His followers see him as an Apollo bringing forth a new age.
Yet the world isn't bending, and the new age remains unborn. Despite all the excitement, Assange's impact has been minimal. Until incarcerated, he simply dropped one info-bomb after another, then ran off and hid, perhaps loitering to paw a woman or two in the process. It's an unedifying spectacle, nothing Alexandrine or Napoleonic about it.
It has been an axiom of the left since the days of the New Masses and the Daily Worker that if "the people" knew what was "really going on," what decisions were being made and crimes committed "in their name," they'd simply rise up in their wrath to smash the pillars of the temple and smite the evildoers. This is the impulse behind the Pentagon Papers, all those flicks that end with the main character pausing meaningfully before entering the Times building, and, for that matter, the entire Plame saga, now appearing in a multiplex near you. That is the role that Assange is playing in real time and on the world stage. And yet... far from ushering a new non-Matrix reality, he's cowering in a British hoosegow waiting for the Swedish cops to get the spelling right on his rape warrant, his site is being locked out from every host and service on the net, from Amazon to PayPal to XXX Real Live Bondage XXX for all I know, while the world awaits his next info-bomb not with dread or exultation, but with much the same sense of titillation as greets the antics of Britney or Jon Gosselin. What went wrong?
The information is trivial. There are no blockbusters or nation-breakers in the material yet released. No secret fleets of black helicopters. Karl Rove is not scheming to sell humanity to the aliens. The CIA is not transplanting children's brains into chimpanzees in the Langley basement. What we have learned instead is that the Saudis are terrified at the prospect of a nuclear Iran, that the U.S. is cutting quiet anti-terror deals with countries such as Yemen, and that Hamid Karzai is as corrupt as he is charismatic. In other words, nothing at all new to anyone paying attention to media reports. The big disclosure is how little of this stuff needed to be secret in the first place.
There have been loud gasps in some circles at the "news" that Hillary instructed her diplomats to seek out intelligence. This is asinine. Diplomats have been low-key intelligence agents as long as they've existed. For centuries they were often the only intelligence force many states possessed. The practice was not invented by Hillary, or Condi, or even Talleyrand, for that matter. It's part of the job description. All this "revelation" does is provide Dick Morris with ammunition to continue his never-ending feud with Hillary.
The only item that surprised me was news of China's impatience with North Korea, which I never thought they'd admit to anybody, but there it is. Since one of the drivers of the recent crisis has been the conviction that China would back up North Korea to the last ditch, it appears that our would-be Australian Samson has succeeded only in defusing a current tension point. Good going -- how does a Nobel sound?
The damage is minimal. There has been a lot of concern expressed over damage to the U.S. as a whole, to American diplomacy, and to the international community. I don't see it. The Saudis are not going to sever relations or cease sharing intelligence, not with a pack of crazy Shi'ites intent on building A-bombs right across the Gulf. The Yemenis are not going to toss the infidels out and allow al-Qaeda to march into Sana'a next week. What damage does exist can be easily repaired since it's in the interests of all concerned to do so.
Examine the chain of events. The gruff, hard-bitten Bradley Manning stole a lot of secret e-mails and sent them to WikiLeaks. The e-mails originated in large part from the Defense Department, run by Robert Gates, and the State Department, run by Hillary Clinton. The Justice Department, run by Eric Holder, couldn't figure out what to do about it. All these people work for Barack Obama. That's a pretty impressive lineup. All that we're missing is Van Jones, and he'll probably pop up.
If anybody sees a sign of the reliable, dutiful United States in that picture, the U.S. that serves as global sheriff and last resort of desperate nations and peoples worldwide, kindly point it out to me. All I see is the weird, twisted caricature that Obama and company have been trying to foist on us lo these past two years. It is that fantasy leftist U.S. that will take the major hit -- as long as the center-right doesn't line up to support O and his menagerie in a fit of false patriotism. This is not an American screw-up -- it is the ultimate Democratic foreign policy fiasco. It has all the symptoms: an unbalanced clown in a position of trust, loosened security standards, aloofness and ignorance at the highest levels, and pure ineptitude elsewhere. We have seen it a thousand times under LBJ, Carter, and Clinton, and here it is again. I'm certain that most foreign leaders would agree, whatever they may say for public consumption. What is going through their minds now is this: this is what happens when they put a Democrat in charge over there.
Yes, there has been ancillary damage to the United States. But the catastrophic damage is limited to the Democratic brand -- the ultimate proof, written in letters a mile high, that if Luxembourg were to attack the U.S. with a Democrat in office, we'd all be subjects of the Grand Duke two weeks later, without, furthermore, anybody being able to figure out how it happened.
For this point of view, it's clear that Julian has been calling in artillery rounds on his own position.
Assange's followers are flakes. These are not Red Guards or Khmer Rouge; these are the potential victims of Red Guards and Khmer Rouge -- foolish, childish, spoiled, miseducated (and possibly ineducable), the dregs of millennial society. They exist in a dream reality, feeding on myths that any normal individual would reject half-heard: that the world is run by means of conspiracy. That capitalism is evil. That Marxism is about sharing. That 9/11 was an inside job. That Michael Moore and Joseph C. Wilson IV are heroic figures. And most of all, that a brave new world lies just around the corner if we only do the right thing.
These people -- the lumpen-intellectuals -- have been bereft in recent months. Their last messiah let them down badly. It has been two years since 2008, and we're still in the bad old world, with Gitmo open, George W. Bush unarrested, and the oceans purportedly still rising. But now they have a new messiah, one whose prophecies remain tantalizingly vague and thus all the more enticing.
What we have here is a religious war, with the left's true believers against everybody else. Fortunately, their method of fighting amounts to sending out e-mails deriding Bristol Palin. In this view, Assange is the latest of those peculiar historical figures who appear when a system is collapsing, vocally assuring its triumph while practically guaranteeing its extinction -- Savonarola in 15th-century Florence, Tenskwatawa and Sitting Bull among the 19th-century Indian tribes, Gorbachev in the last days of the USSR. This new crusade will end just as badly as they all do.
(Anyone seeking evidence of terminal flakiness will find it in this Q&A. One of the questioners unburdens himself of the major puzzle that's been gnawing at him: what about UFOs? Julian A. assures him that the data's on the way. The truth is out there!)
Assange is not too bright. Assange has an obsessive's grasp of IT, and that's about it. The balance of his ideas are on a level with those of his followers -- the same as those of a somewhat thick college sophomore who gets most of his information from the tube.
Consider his strategy. Rather than analyze the e-mails on hand, collate them, sort them, select the one ones with the greatest potential for controversy, and release them where they would have the most impact, he simply throws everything out at once. Why? Because he doesn't know any better. Think of what could have been done with the same information by someone with a more sophisticated grasp of politics -- someone who would have contacted interested parties, who obtained financing or protection by guaranteeing certain messages would -- or would not -- be released. Who would use what he had to pry or bluff further information. Consider what chaos could have been created if this material had been data-mined on behalf of the al-Qaeda or another enemy force. Consider what a Metternich, a Lenin, or a Goebbels would have accomplished with such material.
In light of the possibilities, the actual results are unimpressive. Whatever damage Assange has achieved can in no way match the apocalyptic ruin he was seeking to trigger. He must be far more bewildered and frustrated that he's letting on: it's not like the movies. What happened?
The question remains as to why Assange has been allowed to continue. Part of the answer undoubtedly lies in incompetence -- it's a real puzzle as to exactly what would have to happen to make Eric Holder do the smart thing. But a deeper explanation may lie at the exact opposite pole -- in the omnicompetence of the Intelligence Community that remains untouched by Obama's influence.
It has been known that Assange possessed this material for nearly a year. It was understood that there was no means of getting it back or preventing its release. So what was the alternative? If you've got a lemon, you make lemonade.
Any number of methods exist for manipulating Assange and his organization -- send WikiLeaks fake files, locate their archives and insert new files, manipulate e-mails and other messages, and others that even my nasty imagination would miss without specialized training. As for the purpose -- that's not difficult to envision. A message implying that certain jihadi leaders are on the payroll. That a critical North Korean officer is a Western agent. That certain things that Osama, the mullahs, or Dear Leader wanted done were not done, or were botched in the doing. (In the late 1930s, German intelligence eliminated Soviet Marshal Tukachevsky, the actual formulator of the blitzkrieg strategy, and his entire general staff by exactly this means. Even if the victim suspects the info is false, he still has to take some action. Needless to say, the ultra-paranoid Stalin didn't require much prompting.)
It is likely that Assange is being used, possibly by several parties. They know his every move, what he's doing, whom he's in contact with. (While he was fleeing Sweden at the end of last summer, two laptops in his luggage vanished, along with all data media. See "not too bright" above.) His organization has been penetrated, with all new leaked material traced and accounted for. It's fairly certain that everyone involved has been tracked down by this time, with none of them capable making a move unobserved. Assange is now a puppet, acting out against his will the role of Goethe's Mephistopheles, "Who wills forever evil, and does forever good." (Keep in mind that this holds true even is he is forced to address the charges in Sweden. The rape charges are ancillary matters, unrelated to WikiLeaks -- in fact, little more than a distraction.)
But eventually, Assange's usefulness will end. Then he will vanish -- not by means of a hit squad, but far more subtly and elegantly. A batch of documents from Russia, the mob, or Hamas will appear on the WikiLeaks site, and in short order, Julian and everyone who ever worked for him will be seen in their regular haunts no longer. A wise intelligence service will have film footage of Julian being jammed into a car by figures easily identifiable as to country of origin.
My sympathy will be well-controlled. People have died -- and more will die -- because of this man's actions. It is apparent in the manner in which he abuses women that Assange is a psychopath. Such figures grow worse as they grow more deluded. Under the circumstances, the sooner the better.
The first aircraft raids were carried out by pilots tossing grenades from open-cockpit biplanes. We are the same position as the soldiers gazing up out of the trenches and wondering what the hell that was all about as the offending kite puttered off into the clouds. People in 1914 were not yet introduced to the concept of technological extrapolation; they did not even consider the possibility of the vast air fleets, ruined cities, and atomic bomb strikes that were to grow from such trivial origins. After a century of whirlwind technology, we know better.
How do we defend ourselves on the transformed global battlefield? National militaries are studying both Stuxnet and WikiLeaks closely, not to mention thousands of hackers sitting in their basements considering how much better they'd have handled it than Julian A. We can take it for granted that the same level of discussion and analysis is occurring in American military and intelligence circles. As already noted, nothing can be expected from the current administration. But when a new one takes office, we can be sure that much of the necessary groundwork for Cyberdefense V.2 will have been accomplished.
But we can't leave it at that. The threat is too great, too vast, and too varied. Nor is it limited to IT. The nightmare possibilities inherent in nanotech and biotech chill the blood. There are already large numbers of serious amateurs carrying out biotech experiments in their homes and offices. Little oversight exists to assure that none of them is attempting to supercharge the plague bacillus. Simply add the dementia of a Charles Manson or the megalomania of a Jim Jones, and the picture comes right into focus.
One figure we can look to is the shadowy one of the Jester, evidently the sole force in the Western world capable of making WikiLeaks dance to its own tune. In the Jester's actions we can see clear similarities to the War on Terror, in which civilians have prevented almost all jihadi attacks while official forces have made ever greater asses out of themselves. We are just as much in the front lines as regards cyberwar as we are in fighting terror. We must consider how to extend and deepen the combatant role that the Jester has pioneered. Grabbing people's crotches, no matter how appealing to the Pistoles and Napolitanos of the world, will accomplish nothing. (One possibility would be an informal network among amateur biotech researchers to provide basic self-policing.)
But in the end, we will require something far more profound than tactics, strategy, or organization. We will require a new civility, a mass return to the ideals of responsibility and service that animated civilization up until the modern era. We must revive the concept of the heroic. We need a status quo in which efforts such as WikiLeaks would be considered a scandal and a disgrace by all. After two centuries, the compulsive rebel -- descended from the club-footed Byron and the frail Shelley -- has about run his string. It is a long way down from the maimed grandeur of a Byron to the whining, petulant Assange. Whatever benefit such types may have provided is a matter of dead history. They have shed their attractiveness and outworn their welcome. They are a nuisance at best and a danger at worst. Our civilization has reached a stage where we would be better off without them.
It is possible to transform an entire society in such a fashion. This is exactly what occurred in Great Britain between 1790 and 1840. A rough, violent, and licentious society became one in which gentility, taste, and industry prevailed. This was accomplished through religious fervor, education, and example. The tools exist to duplicate this transformation today. As for the details...they require more in the way of consideration than we have space for at the moment.
J.R. Dunn is consulting editor of American Thinker and will edit the forthcoming Military Thinker. His upcoming book Death by Liberalism can be found at Amazon.com.